The town of Phalodi lies halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the Rajasthan tourist circuit. Phalodi is an unremarkable town that one drives through in a couple of minutes on the good highway that links the two larger cities. Phalodi is known as the salt city of India and was an important trading post in the days of camel caravans travelling along the overland silk route. Six kilometers away from here, driving along a narrow dirt road, is an even more unremarkable and dusty village called Khichan. The village has been a traditional stop for decades on the annual migratory route of Demoiselle Cranes between September and March each year. Sometime during the 1970s, after a series of droughts, a local Jain merchant decided to help the few dozen migrant visitors and began to feed them grain. The following year, the number of visiting birds doubled and more volunteers stepped in to contribute grain or funds for the feeding of the birds. By 1996, Otto Pfister writes in a despatch of the Oriental Bird Club, that 6000 cranes were visiting and being fed half a ton of grain per day (mainly sorghum) for six months every year. By 2012, there were an estimated 20,000 of these elegant birds in Khichan every year, on their way back from breeding sites in Mongolia and Eurasia. After crossing the steppes of Central Asia, where they are hunted by predators like the golden eagle, these delicate-looking birds fly at heights of 5000 to 10,000 meters to cross the Himalayas. This is an incredible feat at oxygen-starved altitudes and along the way are other dangers; the wars in Afghanistan, or human disruption of their habitats.
The crane is known as Koonj in Hindi, and there are many stories told about why the village community decided to feed the birds. One villager, when asked, speaks of the birds as auspicious symbols. “As long as the birds come, the future of our village is assured.” In the epic Mahabharata, the disciplined flight formation of the family groups of these birds is imitated when forming battle lines (Krauncha Vyuha) in the Kurukshetra war. In the crane-shaped formation of infantry units, forces are distributed to imitate the cranes’s wingspan, with a formidable, penetrating centre depicting the crane’s head and beak.
Through the power of the media, what was once a small local custom has attracted a large international following. The village of Khichan is now on the tourist map of Rajasthan and bird lovers from all over the world visit the place. What started forty years ago as a gesture to help a small flock of 150 migrant birds now attracts over 20,000 cranes annually. There are several amateur videos of the remarkable spectacle on You Tube. Here is one example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSWEWdp-X_k
One observer writes: The most amazing thing during the morning feeding sessions perhaps is how disciplined the cranes are. They fly into specially created enclosures, walled fields of around an acre each. When one batch has fed, the next batch flies in for their turn. If the field is full, they land outside the field and patiently wait their turn.
Beginning in the 1970s, several remarkable people have transformed the face of Rajasthan. One of these, Rajendra Singh, mentioned in an earlier blog (Stepwells and Johads:digging into the past) as the man who restored the flow of seven dried up rivers in Rajasthan, now finds his expertise in demand at international meetings like the Economist Water Forum in early November where he advised property owners in the UK about methods to prevent flooding in Northumberland and elsewhere. For more, see The driest part of India offers a solution to Britain’s floods, from the Telegraph of 7 November 2014.
A lot has been written in recent years about mitigation and adaptation measures to counter AGW (anthropogenic global warming) and climate change. It is to mankind’s own long-term benefit to protect biodiversity. Ecological studies show that biologically diverse communities are more productive and stable. Traditional communities have long followed this wisdom, hard-won through years of observation and patience. Modern science confirms their wisdom. Positive actions usually come full circle, but when the circles are on a global scale they so large that we often do not see it.